Love and Homegrown Tomatoes

September 22, 2015

By Audrey Roen

This summer I did something I’ve never done before. Ladies and gentlemen, I have volunteered in a community garden.

I know. But before you judge, let me at least tell you how I got started, who I met and why it was one of the best decisions I’d ever made.

I stumbled upon Cheney Mansion garden while assistant teaching a camp through the Sugar Beet Co-op. Located on Erie and Euclid Ave. in Oak Park, the garden grows a variety of produce and is organized by Harvest Coordinator Mary E. O’Kiersey. While exploring the garden with my campers, I found the garden welcomes volunteers every Wednesday from 9 – 11 a.m. and that the harvest they gather is taken to the Oak Park Food Pantry up on Lake St.

Being a volunteer addict, I showed up for work the next Wednesday.

In a typical harvest you show up, start picking and at about 11:00 a.m. you take what you’ve gathered to the Food Pantry. My first time there, we collected over 130 pounds of produce that we then took to the food pantry.

According to a recent report by the National Gardening Association, 35% of all households in the U.S. (42 million) are growing food at home or in a community garden. This is an increase of 17% in just five years. In addition, the millennial generation (ages 18 – 34) is the fastest growing population of food gardeners. In 2008, 8 million millennials were food gardeners in the United States. That figure increased by 63% to become 13 million in 2013.

Mary O’Kiersey, Cheney Garden Harvest coordinator, supports the trend as described by the NGA, “As the old saying goes, ‘there are two things money can’t buy: love and homegrown tomatoes.’”

We spoke briefly about how she got involved in gardening and what it does for her.

“Gardening makes me feel very healthy, I get involved with the earth,” said O’Kiersey. “The act of picking a fresh tomato from the garden and bringing it into the house for dinner…there’s nothing like it.”

However, gardening is not all glitz and glamor. First of all, the rewards that come from it are not immediate. “It’s slow,” Mary says. “It teaches you patience, and it gets you into a different kind of the rhythm. It’s not rush off to work and come home, rush off to work and come home. You get to go outside and just ask, what’s blooming today?” Secondly (plain and simple), gardening isn’t for everyone. “If you don’t enjoy it there is no reason to garden,” explained O’Kiersey.

Despite the long process and digging in dirt, Mary believes that gardening is a beneficial alternative to buying produce from outside sources. Mary explained that while food companies and serving establishments frequently purchase bulk produce from gardeners across the U.S., the risk of the food rotting and arriving in mediocre condition is significantly greater compared to purchasing food from local community gardens. The Oak Park Food Pantry, O’Kiersey says, is one of the few pantries in the Chicago area that have fresh, locally grown food from the Cheney Mansion garden and Oak Park Schools.

While still on campus, Mary E. O’Kiersey encourages us college students to pester who we can to start a garden of our own. The amount of food produced could go to the food pantry and even our own cafeteria kitchen to improve the quality of fresh fruit and veggies being served.

Personally, I knew gardening was a thing people did in their free time, I knew magazines were written about it and I’d heard stories from gardeners about how sometimes Mother Nature is cruel. But I’d never known gardening like this before. This was more than just growing your own basil leaves for fun. I stayed with it for the rest of the summer and got to know the gardeners and the trend of community gardens a little better than I did before. This gardening fulfilled a need and it served a purpose of feeding people, people in need.